Transforming Boston’s untapped talent into mini maestros

August 12, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
If you take a look at orchestras around the country, you'll find a striking lack of black and Latino players. Changing the face of classical music is the mission of Project STEP, a Boston organization that for more than 30 years has been teasing talent out of kids who otherwise might be overlooked. Special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: If you take a look at musical orchestras across the country, you will find a striking lack of black and Latino players. For more than 30 years, Project STEP, based just beneath the Symphony Hall stage in Boston, has been trying to change that.

Now its mentoring program for young musicians is even getting attention from the White House.

Jared Bowen of PBS station WGBH in Boston has the story.

JARED BOWEN: They have all the bearings of the classically trained and the classically gifted, years of study at play, despite their few years. And they are, in many respects, the unlikely.

MARY JAFFEE, Executive Director, Project STEP: Some kids are born with a musicality that really shows through at age 5. You can see it in the way that they move to music. You can see it in the way they follow rhythms.

MAN: One, two, three, four.

JARED BOWEN: Mary Jaffee is the executive director of Project STEP, a Boston organization that teases talent out of kids who might otherwise find it squandered. Her mission is simple: to change the face of classical music.

MARY JAFFEE: There are so few — in fact, virtually — almost no African-American and Latino musicians in orchestras and in audiences.

JARED BOWEN: Since 1982, Project STEP has pushed to correct that imbalance. Each year, it fans out across Boston kindergarten classes, identifying students with unusual potential.

MARY JAFFEE: From that 50 to 100 kids, we take in three to four a year, so it’s a very narrow bottleneck. Those kids are highly talented.

MAN: So, the trick is to play them all in the right time.

JARED BOWEN: These young children are among the finalists for acceptance into Project STEP. If chosen, they will be plunged into an intensive music immersion program.

From now until they graduate high school, they will take weekly classes, receive one-on-one lessons and they’re expected to complete hours of at-home practice. And that’s all on top of their regular schoolwork. At this last stage of selection, the students are divided into small groups for a month of violin lessons perfecting how they hold their bow, position their feet and read music.

Susan Jarvis has been teaching the class for 13 years, scrutinizing their mastery of music.

SUSAN JARVIS, Teacher, Project STEP: It’s a matter of finding which child — which children can adapt to it the fastest. Every child can do it in their own time, but some kids are maybe a little more innately coordinated or have a really strong interest in it.

Hands up if you know where A-string is.

JARED BOWEN: They are so young.

SUSAN JARVIS: These guys are old.


SUSAN JARVIS: These are a joy to teach every year, because they’re 5 and 6 years old. And that’s a big difference from the 3- and 4-year-olds, which I — I normally teach.

JARED BOWEN: Just as important as the music is what happens at home. Project STEP will select only students who have full parental involvement. In class, they are fully behind the students.

SUSAN JARVIS: Let’s get some help from your parents. They’re going to be your beat partners. They’re going to keep your eyes on the music, and you’re going to keep your eyes on their fingers.

The parents are the lifeline. We work pretty hard to tell the parents what to do, how to do it, and how many times to do it, because in teaching a string instrument, there’s just not a lot of room for error at the beginning.

AJANI BOYD: Personally, music just calms me down. Like, it makes me feel good inside.

JARED BOWEN: At 11 years old, Ajani Boyd has now played with Project STEP longer than he hasn’t. He’s all about the bass now, but he was 4 when he chose the cello.

AJANI BOYD, Student, Project STEP: I picked the cello. And, honestly, I kind of picked the cello because I could sit down.

JARED BOWEN: He can be forgiven the easy choice, given the program’s demands, practice daily and up to nine hours every Saturday.

MARY JAFFEE: It’s pretty intense. The new measure of 10,000 hours of preparation, rehearsal, practice, whatever it is, they put it in by the time they’re in high school. It’s an — it’s just an awful lot.

JARED BOWEN: But it served Njeri Grevious well. She’s now a sophomore at Yale University studying mathematics.

Do you think about what would have been if you didn’t have an opportunity like this?

NJERI GREVIOUS, Yale University: Very difficult, almost impossible. I actually don’t want to think about that. I definitely think it’s — I have been so blessed.

JARED BOWEN: Grevious spent 12 years in Project STEP, including a time, she says, when her family was left homeless.

NJERI GREVIOUS: When we were living out of the car, when sometimes it was very, very cold waking up in the morning, no heating in the house, and trying to practice, we pull — were able to put all that aside, because, when we’re engaging with our instruments, its just us, ourselves, our instruments, our music.

And then when we’re playing with other people, it’s all of that times — to the nth power. And we’re able to find peace and solace.

JARED BOWEN: Working off a tight budget with money it receives from foundations and individual donors, Project STEP subsidizes virtually all the students’ expenses, roughly $9,000 to $11,000 annually.

It gives them opportunity, while their base in the basement of Symphony Hall gives them access.

MARY JAFFEE: One parent put it that she didn’t think she could touch Symphony Hall. She used to walk by it and thought it just wasn’t for her. And now she’s learned to navigate the halls and say hello to some of the musicians.

JARED BOWEN: And even play with them. There are not many people, let alone 11-year-olds, who can claim to have performed on stage with one of the most famous musicians of our time.

NJERI GREVIOUS: Here is Yo-Yo Ma, and then a little bit next to him is me.


NJERI GREVIOUS: That was an incredible opportunity that I got, and I will never forget that moment.

JARED BOWEN: The moments don’t get much bigger, though, than when Project STEP was honored by the White House late last year with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by first lady Michelle Obama.

AJANI BOYD: It’s just crazy to be able to say, “when I came back from the White House.” I mean, it’s — being — going to the White House was amazing. It was such a fun experience. Met a lot of people. I got to meet the first lady. So it was just awesome in all.

JARED BOWEN: All of this is a testament to the music and the instruction, that in an age of attention deficits, these students will practice thousands of hours. In moments of crisis, music is their salvation.

All of Project STEP’s 60 students have graduated high school, and half of them have gone on to the country’s most prestigious Ivy League schools or conservatories. And Jaffee says more than half of them are now professional musicians themselves.

Does the program change lives?

MARY JAFFEE: It does change lives. I believe it does change lives. It’s certainly changed my life.

JARED BOWEN: And many others through the power of music.

This is Jared Bowen from WGBH for the PBS NewsHour in Boston.